Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Cold Competition, Continued

When we left Nahant, we had already missed some good birds and needed to catch up. As we drove into Gloucester, we made a quick stop to find the Peregrines that perch atop the city hall's clock tower. I missed them since my binoculars got tangled in my seatbelt, but four team members saw them, enough for the species to count. (I saw one of the Peregrines on the following day.) From there we headed to Gloucester's fish pier, normally a reliable spot for white-winged and other unusual gulls. On that day the only gulls were Herring and Great Black-backed, with the exception of a possible Iceland that Christopher picked out in flight. We had a similar result at the nearby Niles Pond, another reliable gull location that was bereft of gulls on the day of the Superbowl.

On the way to Eastern Point, the first of our coastal stops along Cape Ann, we spotted a small group of Wild Turkeys in someone's backyard and a Black Scoter on the bay. One thing I noticed during the event was that White-winged Scoters, a species I consider a relative rarity, seems very common in Massachusetts, but Black and Surf Scoters seem much less common. Most scoters I saw were White-winged. Eastern Point itself was a blast – in the sense of a blast of Arctic air. Even my hand and toe warmers and multiple layers proved inadequate against the penetrating cold. Needless to say, we did not spend much time there.

Elsewhere along Cape Ann's coast, cold and wind proved less of a problem.* Nate picked out a Black Guillemot, a life bird for me. Andrew spotted an airborne flock of Sanderling with a Ruddy Turnstone at its head. At one point, the lure of watching several dozen Harlequin Ducks proved too much for me to resist until Mike announced another alcid, this time a Thick-billed Murre. Nate found a Northern Flicker flying in off the ocean; where it originated is unclear. Our last stop in Cape Ann was Andrews Point, a rocky outcropping with a commanding view of the ocean. There the team picked up a Dovekie, our first five-point bird of the day. Enough team members saw it for it count. Unfortunately both Mike and I missed it; the Dovekie would have been a life bird for both of us. My consolation prize was a satisfying look at my life Black-legged Kittiwake.

Pressed for time and needing to find more birds, we headed north to Salisbury and Newburyport. Along the way we scanned every distant raptor-like bird for the elusive Turkey Vulture, a five-point bird for this winter competition. Finally, I spotted two out the front window of the van just outside Ipswich. At Salisbury State Park, we found Bald Eagle and Horned Larks, but missed Merlin, Snow Buntings, and Lapland Longspurs. In downtown Newburyport, we missed the Common Mergansers that we had expected and that Nate and Christopher had seen the day before. At Parker River NWR, commonly known as Plum Island, our luck changed for the better as we quickly found an American Kestrel, a Rough-legged Hawk, and two Snowy Owls. We missed Northern Shrike, despite our best attempts to make one out of every robin and mockingbird that we passed. We ended the competition scanning the ocean from the top of a dune. Nate picked out an Iceland Gull floating on a block of ice while the sun set over the marshes behind us.

As the clock ticked over to 5 pm, we left the refuge for the compilation dinner, and I posted "Game over" on Twitter. We ended the day with 70 species and 127 points, which was good for 6th in species and 7th in points among all teams. The winning team, The Granite State Bird Watch, observed 83 species for 164 while competing only in Rockingham County, New Hampshire. You can read about their day at The Worn Field Guide. While our effort was unable to beat The Granite State Bird Watch – or several other teams, for that matter – it did win us the Essex County Excels award for the most points in Essex County, Massachusetts. Truth to be told, we probably won only because another team neglected to compete in that category, but a win on a technicality is still a win. As a prize, we each received a $50 gift certificate for Massachusetts Audubon's nature store. With the competition over, we headed back to our hotel suite for dinner and some much-needed sleep.

* Some details in this paragraph may not be completely accurate since many of the stops blur together.